There was a scene during the filming of Their Finest that puzzled the landlord of the Cresselly Arms in Pontargothi. Having relinquished his country pub to the film crew for three days, he snuck back to watch the action.
"There was one thing that stuck in my mind," says Colin Evans. "The producer said, 'Right, everyone on the quay.' There was silence and they just filmed for 10 minutes. Nothing happened, absolutely nothing, then he said 'wonderful, wonderful' and flapped his arms around."
The mystery wouldn’t be solved for another year; not until the film came out at the cinema, and Colin saw that the pub he owns with his brother had been superimposed on to the quayside at Porthgain, 30 miles away on the Pembrokeshire coast.
Their Finest is a poignant wartime drama in which Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) set out to make a morale-boosting film about Dunkirk whilst navigating the Blitz, limited resources and the ego of their not-quite leading man, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). Although it's set in Devon, the producers chose Pembrokeshire as the backdrop for the film’s coastal scenes.
"Our Welsh locations were key in providing period-accurate and pretty much untouched backdrops for our early 1940s scenes," says producer Amanda Posey. "Many had rarely or never been used in films before."
The vast empty beaches of Pembrokeshire are not just a delight for filmmakers, as I discover on a week’s holiday with my three young kids. As we head west of Carmarthen, the lanes shrink and the hedges grow, before rejoining A-roads full of brown tourist signs.
Each time we hit a castle town, the traffic slows to a halt and pedestrians stroll in front of the car, pausing to spear a chip or consult a map. There’s Tenby Castle, Carew and Pembroke – my 6-year-old reads the signs – then eventually we reach Freshwater West, the beach that appeared as Dunkirk in Their Finest. I pull into the small National Trust car park and have barely cut the engine before the boys disappear up a sand dune. I find them five minutes later rolling down the other side towards the wide glistening sands.
When they emerge we crunch sandwiches in the dunes, then paddle to the far end of the beach, watching the black dots morph into surfers. Part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Freshwater West is no stranger to film crews having also appeared in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Freshwater West (© Visit Wales)
By the time we arrive at the southern end, the tide is a long way out and the surf is huge. We swim in the rock pools instead, then treat ourselves to a hot chocolate from Cafe Môr, the hipster streetfood van on the clifftop. The kids are horrified to discover that the "laver" seasoning in the accompanying brownie is in fact seaweed – "the sort that looks like plastic bin-liners" explains the girl who serves us. They tear at my brownie like the undead and it’s reduced to crumbs before I’ve even managed a bite.
On our way back to Tenby, we take a short detour towards Cresswell Quay, where the pub scenes were filmed. As we wind our way inland, crossing humpback bridges flanked by fields and woodland, I’m intrigued as to why the director chose a pub so far away from the harbour. Finally we arrive at an old quayside on a bend in the river and across the road is the
Cresselly Arms, cloaked gutter to drains in ivy, with a pillar-box red door.
Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
The tide is out, so the kids hop across the stepping stones over the muddy Cleddau estuary whilst I head inside and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark oak panelling and chequered tiled floors. With decades of great nights out etched in nicotine on the ceiling, the Cresselly Arms is traditional home-from-home establishment. Indeed the back room – where much of the filming took place – reminds me of my nan’s lounge (plus dartboard). There’s even a photo wall with a snap of Colin with Bill Nighy. The likeness is uncanny.
"The room in the back is where they sang," Colin tells me. "We’ve kept it how they left it". A punter leans across the bar, "yeah, but you didn’t keep beer at threepence a pint did you?"
"I will do," Colin assures him. "I’ll have a DVD showing, and if you dress in a flat cap beer will be 10 pence per pint."
"Their Finest is a quirky film," he continues. "Quintessentially British. I couldn’t work out how it could end – but then when Catrin goes to the cinema and... let's just say it got to me. Reached a lot of emotions."
We head to that cinema the following day. It’s the Palace Theatre in the town of Haverfordwest, which turns to be surprisingly colourful thanks to some yarn-bombers. The grade II-listed building – formerly the corn exchange – was opened as a cinema in 1913, and today’s showings are displayed in the same Art Deco typography. When the sales assistant hands me the tiny ticket stub, I note the logo of a film reel. "It’s the original design," he says. "When they filmed here they didn’t have to make too many changes, just things like the speakers."
Peter appears as an extra in Their Finest. Sitting around all day with a new haircut and 1940s attire was an experience he doesn't care to repeat. "It was my first time as an extra and a really long day, but you do at least see me for about two seconds at the end."
Half an hour’s drive from Haverfordwest is Porthgain, a historic harbour on the St David’s peninsula with a hook-shaped breakwater chiselled into the cliffs. Towering above it are redbrick hoppers, which were used for brickmaking in the late 19
"Porthgain gave us that very authentic fishing village feel", says producer Amanda Posey. "We then matched it with visual effects to a lovely old pub inland, to create the 'cast and crew' base and principle location for [their film] The Nancy Starling."
Despite its rural location, the car park at Porthgain is almost full when we arrive, and the village is full of families eating ice cream and kids playing football on the green. We make our way towards the coastal path, but are ambushed en route by the smell of freshly battered fish and chips from the Shed cafe. We surrender (to be fair no one puts up much of a fight), and I part with the princely sum of £2.50 for the biggest bowl of AA-rosette winning chips I’ve ever had. Now surely this is the
real reason the producers chose Wales over Cornwall.
Porthgain (© Visit Wales)
To walk off the chips, we head southwest along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, my heart in my mouth each time my 3-year-old nears the cliff edge to peer at kayakers 300m below and a lone seal who seems to be tracking us.
As we approach Abereiddy, we pass young crowds in helmets and wetsuits; some grinning, some white as a sheet. Intrigued, we follow the signs to the Blue Lagoon – a flooded slate quarry – where I hear the sickening slap of bodies against water. Fortunately it’s followed by raucous cheers, and I remember that Pembrokeshire is a
The kids stare open-mouthed as one-by-one lads hurl themselves like lemmings into the turquoise water 20m below.
"Mum..." says my eldest.
"No. Absolutely not. Don’t even think about it," I say, grabbing his hand, and leading him away before he gets any ideas. Ten minutes later we’re at the beach searching for "tuning fork" fossils – small marine animals called graptolites – which I let him believe are dinosaurs.
After he’s piled the picnic blanket high with slate fossils, he challenges me to a race into the sea. I’m still dancing like a leprechaun over the pebbles as he dives into the waves. Eventually I follow suit and surface with a yelp. That’s when I notice that everyone else is wearing a wetsuit. Still, I grit my teeth, and pretend it’s the Med, remembering something Amanda Posey told me.
"Our Welsh filming experience was a real pleasure; not simply for the locations themselves, but being able to spend time in the glorious country and seaside round there," she said. "Gemma [Arterton], Rachael [Stirling] and Richard [E Grant], as well as many of our crew enjoyed sea swimming on our days off."
Well, if they can do it in October, I think, putting my shoulders under the water...
SO (gasp) CAN (shriek) I.
Their Finest is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms now courtesy of Lionsgate UK. For more holiday ideas, see visitwales.com
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